Ravana, the king of Lanka was the principal adversary of Rama in the great epic Ramayana. Ravana was also the king of Rakshasas or demons. He was depicted with ten heads and thus earned the names like Dashamukha (ten faced), Dashagriva (ten necked) and Dashakantha (ten throats). Ravana also had ten hands, which signified greed and never-ending last.
Ravana was the son of Brahaman sage Vishrava and Kaikesi, the Daitya princess. Kaikesi`s father Sumali, the king of Daityas wanted that Kaikesi should marry a man who is the most powerful in the mortal world so that she can produce an exceptional heir. Sumali rejected all the kings, as they were less powerful than him.Kaikesi then selected sage Vishrava. As Kaikesi approached Vishrava in an auspicious moment without paying attention to his warning, their children tend towards evil. Thus Ravana was partly Daitya and partly Brahmin.
Ravana was eldest among the Vishrava`s children. Vishrava presented him a crystal necklace at his birth. The myth of his ten heads probably came from reflection in this necklace. Some say that Ravana had the mental strength of ten people and so he was said to have ten heads. Ravana had two brothers Vibhishana and Kumbhakarna and one sister called Meenakshi, who was more famous as Shurpanakha (one with sharp fingernails). Ravana was also related to the Daityas Maricha and Subahu through his mother.
Though Ravana had an aggressive and arrogant nature, he was an exemplary scholar. Ravana mastered Vedas and other holy scripts under the care of his father Vishrava. He also learnt the art and techniques of Kshatriya life. Sumali, his maternal grandfather put a watch on him so that Ravana retained the ethics of Daityas.
After Ravana had completed his initial trainings he performed a severe austerity for several years to propitiate Brahma. Lord Brahma was pleased and offered Ravana a boon. Ravana first asked for immortality but Brahma refused and asked him to pray another boon. Ravana then asked for invulnerability and supremacy from gods, heavenly spirits, demons, other serpents and wild beasts. Ravana was disdainful about mortal men and so he did not ask for any protection from human being. Brahma granted him the boons and added more power on him by bestowing him the knowledge of divine weapons and necromancy. As Ravana could win the boons, he then took charge of the great army of his grandfather Sumali and set his kingdom in Lanka.
Lanka was a very nice city created by celestial architect for Ravana`s stepbrother Kubera. Kubera, the god of wealth was another son of Vishrava and had generously shared all his wealth with Kaikesi`s children who were his half brothers. But Ravana demanded whole Lanka from him. Vishrava advised Kubera to give Lanka to Ravana as he became unbeatable. When Ravana took over Lanka, he was not at all a philanthropist ruler. But gradually Lanka flourished under Ravana`s rule. It is believed that poorest of houses in Lanka had gold vessels to eat and drink off and hunger was unknown to the dwellers of Lanka.
Following his conquest of Lanka, Ravana went to appease Lord Shiva at his abode in Kailash. Unknowingly and whimsically Ravana attempted to uproot the mountain Kailash. Shiva was annoyed by Ravana`s adamant nature and pressed his little toe under the mountain and pinned him firmly. Ravana cried out in pain so loudly that whole world shook in earthquake. Shiva`s ganas informed Ravana about his misdeed and being repentant Ravana started praising Shiva by composing and singing songs. He continued to appease Shiva until Shiva was satisfied and made him free from the bondage. Shiva was so impressed by Ravana`s bravery and devotion that he gifted him a powerful sword known as Chandrahas (moon blade). Ravana became a life long devotee of Lord Shiva. Ravana was famous for his dance worship, which is called `Shiva Tandava Stotra`. Shiva was pleased by his dance and named him as Ravana, which means `one who roars terrifyingly`.
Ravana`s power was undoubtedly supreme and he continued through series of campaigns, conquering human, celestials and other demons. He conquered the netherworld completely and left his brother Ahiravana as a king. Ravana made alliance with Nivatakavachas and Kalakeyas, the two clans that could not be subdued and thus he dominated all the Asuras of the three worlds. He also won over several human kingdoms and performed suitable sacrifices and was crowned as emperor.
Once Kubera was annoyed with Ravana for his cruelty and greed and objurgated him. Ravana in turn proceeded to heavens fighting and defeating the gods and singled out his brother Kubera for a particular humiliation. Finally Ravana was able to gain command over the gods, celestials and the serpent races.
Ravana`s family was large and grand. He had many wives and seven sons namely Indrajit, Prahasta, Atikaya, Akshyakumara, Devantaka, Narantaka, Trishira. His paternal grandfather was Pulastya, son of Brahma. Malyavan was his maternal grandfather, Tataka his maternal grandmother and maricha was the maternal uncle of Ravana. Malyavan was against the war with Rama.
Ravana is also known for his virility, lust and aggressiveness for women. Ravana had several wives and he also maintained a big `Harem`, where he kept all the women captured from the conquest in the war. Many of the women accepted him for his masculine charisma, power and knowledge in all directions. Mandodari was his principal wife, who was the daughter of Mayasura and an apsara Hema. Mandodari was famous for her wisdom and grace as well as her beauty and chastity. Mandodari is often compared with Sita for her beauty.
Ravana used to force himself upon the women who prevented his advances. There are two stories regarding it. Vedavati was a beautiful lady who was performing penance with the intention of having Lord Vishnu as her husband. Her beauty enhanced Ravana. Vedavati resisted Ravana`s advance but Ravana did not stop. Vedavati foretold that she would return to the mortal world as the cause of death of Ravana. After that she sacrificed her life in a funeral pyre. She was then born as Ravana and Mandodari`s first child. Ravana was preached before his marriage that their first child would cause his death. So after his first child was born, he sent Subahu to kill the child. Subahu was unable to kill the beautiful baby girl and lied to Ravana that he has killed her. The baby was left and found by King Janaka, who raised her up. She was married to Rama, Vishnu`s incarnation and was the cause of Ravana`s defeat.
The second story is about Ravana`s encounter with apsara Rambha. He also tried to capture Rambha, who was engaged with Kubera`s son. She pleaded to Ravana that she was like his daughter but Ravana was not discouraged. Kubera`s son was so angered that he cursed him stating that if he forced himself upon any woman, his ten heads would fall off immediately. This curse helped to protect Sita`s chastity when she was in captivity of Ravana for about a year.
Ravana`s role in Ramayana was as an antagonist and villain but he had many humble qualities. He gathered knowledge about sacred scriptures, medicines and sorcery. Ravana was great devotee of Shiva who composed the Shiva Tandava Stotra. Legends also say that Ravana performed the puja for Kshatriya Rama before the war between Rama and himself as there was no other Brahmin in Lanka.
There were occasions when Ravana behaved humbly. Once Ravana got himself tied with the tail of mighty Vanara (monkey) king Vali. Vali flew in different directions while performing meditation being completely unaware of Ravana`s presence. When he went back to his palace, he could see Ravana and made him free. The other story is about Ravana`s encounter with Karthavirya Arjun or Sahastra Arjun (having thousand hands). Sahastra Arjuna was taking bath in the river Narmada with his wives, where Ravana also was bathing. Arjuna`s wives asked himself to stop the water of Narmada and he did so. Hence the flow of water stopped at the place where Ravana was bathing. This made him angry and he challenged Karthavirya Arjuna in a battle. Ravana lost the fight and Karthavirya Arjuna imprisoned him. Ravana was only released at his grandfather`s request.
In Bhagavata Purana, Ravana and his brother Kumbhakarna were mentioned as the incarnations of Jaya and Vijaya, the two gatekeepers of Vaikuntha, abode of Vishnu.